Devin Townsend turned producer because no-one else could capture his ambitious musical ideas. It led him on a 25-year learning curve that shows no sign of ending...
Devin Townsend is not afraid to deploy large forces in his music. The Canadian musician and producer has made some 25 studio albums: some under his own name, like the new one Empath, some as the Devin Townsend Band or the Devin Townsend Project, and on his recording debut in 1994, as Strapping Young Lad. He's produced other artists' records, such as Lamb Of God's As The Palaces Burn in 2003, he's made ambient albums like 2004's Devlab, he's thrown in blues and country flavours, as on his Casualties Of Cool (2014), and he's shown himself to be skilled with everything from blistering death metal to quiet laid-back contemplation, as a singer, composer, guitarist, keyboardist, producer, programmer and mixer.
"I've been doing this for so long," he says with a sigh, "that people often say to me, well, how does this new one compare to your other work? And I'm like, well, it's the same shit, it's just this year's version of it. The process maybe changes a bit, but the intention's almost always identical: trying to get it right."
Empath, the new record, is the most impressive display yet of the large forces he relishes. It's Devin's most detailed, textural, and densely packed record so far. And as you might imagine, this kind of elaborate intricacy comes with its own particular set of interlocking and occasionally mind-numbing problems. The 'I Am I' section from a 23‑minute track called 'Singularity' serves as an example of the complexity on offer. "There's synths and choirs and loops," he says, outlining only part of the musical content, "and there's death metal vocals underneath the choir. Then, when I'm mixing, the snare sounds right with the mix, but it sounds terrible when you turn it up, like murk. But if you compress it, to try to have the snare hammer down with the rest of it, all of a sudden the choirs and the orchestras turn to gobbledegook." But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before we deal with the mixing, we really ought to do some recording.
As a teenager in Vancouver, Devin discovered that the local music store rented out a Tascam four-track. That allowed him to learn how to stack up vocal harmonies, which in turn led to guitar harmonies. He joined and formed and left bands, as you do, and at 17 or so he decided to make some demos at a little local studio in Vancouver where all the cool demos were recorded. "I remember saying to the guy, listen, I really like the Enya record Watermark, and I really like Ride The Lightning by Metallica, and I kind of want those, with the Def Leppard sound. And he was just like, 'Yeah... no!' It was very clearly a case of, well, you can't do that. And I was thinking, well, I want to do that." This, among other early moments, led Devin to go it largely alone. Not without collaborators along the way, of course, and not without a learning curve that continues to this day.
"If I'd had the capital or the clout back in the early days to hire someone like Mutt Lange or whoever, I wonder if this thing that I've stumbled upon as a sound would ever have come to fruition. I think at least a certain part of what I do is just because I didn't have anybody telling me no. Until now," he adds, with a smile. "Now I've got more than enough people telling me no. But fortunately I'm too long in the tooth to care."
Following the early Tascam rental, things moved up many notches and he created his own big recording facility. It became evident, though, that he could only keep that afloat by producing bands, and that brought its own complications. "Sometimes you'd be locked into the studio for months with people you have nothing in common with or simply don't like. And I had a hard time with that." The big facility went, leaving behind a few choice bits of gear, and Devin created a small rig. "I've been recording myself since the beginning, but the first record I did without significant help was Synchestra, in 2006, and that was the first one I actually mixed. I remember coming out of it knowing exactly what I wanted the relative values of the sounds to be, but struggling with the fundamentals of recording. It's just not a great-sounding record."
Around that time he had a Steinberg Nuendo system, an Echo audio interface, and a couple of Hafler speakers. Next he moved to a Digi 002, an iMac, a Shure SM7 and a couple of digital guitar processors and, learning all the while, he used that setup to make albums such as The Hummer (2006) and Ziltoid The Omniscient (2007). But he was disappointed with what he calls the "murky-sounding" 002.
"About 2008, I invested in Pro Tools HD, and I started getting more into Ableton and Logic. I bought a bunch of KRK speakers with the sub, a step up from the Haflers, but still a little clunky-sounding. And I recorded tons of things with that system. I had 1176s, an SSL compressor, a 6176 for the vocals, a Chandler TG2, a bunch of other stuff. But I found that I started getting gear... and then not using it, just focusing more on plug-ins. Like, I bought the Manley Massive Passive, and it was beyond my skill set. The set frequencies were such that I couldn't figure it out. I just wanted one that said low, middle and treble, and maybe a sweepable mid."
That led to another clear-out of gear, and recently he arrived at the point where he made Empath with Pro Tools HDX, a bunch of plug-ins, that 6176 for his vocals, and new Focal SM9 monitors, which he describes as "a real paradigm shift". He also has a mobile setup, which he used in Russia, Japan, China and elsewhere while creating Empath, consisting of a MacBook Pro, a MOTU 828 Mk3 interface, an M‑Audio MIDI keyboard and an sE Electronics SE4400a vocal mic.
"I work with Waves extensively, and they've been very kind in providing me tools, and I work with Spitfire Audio, and they provided me with a bunch of plug-ins for the orchestral demos. I purchased Omnisphere, which I use a lot, and Ableton, which I use a ton, and I have the Push 2, which I not only have live, but I actually did a lot of the writing of Empath with that; a great system." Less is more, he concludes. "Gear — it's sexy, and I think people fetishise gear. But I found that the less gear I have, now, the less options I have, the more I'm able to articulate what it is that I want, quicker."
Despite all this admirable self-sufficiency, Devin still needed to organise various tracking sessions at proper recording facilities for portions of Empath. He recorded in Sweden at a friend's studio, at the Armoury in Vancouver, and at another friend's studio in the same city. He selected three drummers for particular tasks on the record: primarily Morgan gren, plus Sam Paulicelli handling the death metal and Anup Sastry for the prog-leaning parts. Engineer Adam 'Nolly' Netgood, who Devin had worked with on his 2016 album Transcendence, masterminded the drum sessions at Monnow Valley in Wales.
"Andrew Scheps has his gear in there: a Neve, loads of gear, a great room, great facility," Devin reports. "To not have to wire all that stuff up to track drums is worth the money for me. I love how Nolly does drums. I hate recording drums, I hate mixing drums. I got him to give me a submix of his mix, and then give me stems that I could bleed in for accents. So, basically, the drums were stems. I didn't have to compress them, I didn't have to add any EQs — well, maybe a little bit — but that was a huge, huge thing for me. I was so happy to be able to do that."
He refers to the new record as his mid-life crisis album — Devin is 47 — and it cost a great deal of money to make. "Up to this point," he says, "I've been really frugal with everything I've recorded. I'd do it at home, I'd set up a studio in someone's garage and record. But this time I was like 'Nah, fuck it, I'll get the nice studio and I'll record my guitars in the best place, I just don't care.' So I set up all these guitar amps, recorded all the guitars in this really fancy place — and then was dissatisfied with the sound. I went home and re-amped it through my [Fractal Audio] Axe-FX! But I think, again, the process of understanding what it isn't is fundamental in any of these projects. And after it all, fortunately I'm still with my wife, and I still have the same car. I screwed up my life only to a point that I think is manageable. And that's a bit of an accomplishment, considering how far it could have gone."
He used the Armoury to record the choral parts for Empath, a rewarding experience with the Elektra Women's Choir. Creating the orchestral parts was more complex and, at times, frustrating. The Lords Of The Sounds, an orchestra from Kiev, offered their services, and it seems unlikely they knew what they were letting themselves in for. "I punished them in ways that I hope they can recover from," Devin says with a smile. The orchestral sounds that ultimately ended up on the record were a combination of his mock-ups using Cinesample and Spitfire libraries, and the real orchestra.
"I broke it all down into MIDI, and then had it written out for them to be able to read. But I told them in the very beginning that I'm hyper-specific about this stuff. I've done a lot of orchestral projects: I've worked in Prague with the orchestra, I've worked in Trondheim with the orchestra, so I know what it is that I'm looking for. I think a lot of times, people go to orchestras and they're just thrilled with the fact that it's an orchestra. But I'm so OCD with pitch and tuning and timing, specifically, that I think it was, er... difficult for them. I think you can only tell people: listen, it's going to be intense, right? And they're like 'No problem!' 'Yeah, yeah, I know, but, it's going to be intense. Let me just say that again.'"
Coaxing real humans to do his bidding was just one of the difficulties that faced Devin in the making of Empath. Time and again he would battle with the large forces he'd created, often trying to balance a raging, beautiful power with the need for space and depth. "What it really comes down to, in a stereo mix," he says, "is that we're trying to crowbar 700 tracks' worth of shit into two speakers." You're exaggerating for effect, Devin, right? "No, no, no. There's some songs on this record that have upwards of 700 tracks. But to do that, and to have the pieces that follow it that have maybe 30 not sound bizarre by comparison, requires an attention to the limiting that is so frustrating. If you smash this stuff into a limiter, some of the parts will sound gratifying. The snare will poke out, you can make it 10dB louder than everything else, then crush it, and it sounds really cool, right? But still it doesn't provide that depth that I'm looking for."
Some people, Devin says, have been critical of the way he mixes, moaning that this or that record of his doesn't sound so big or so loud as this or that record by another artist. That's because it's usually a rock mix that's being compared, but with his records, and especially with Empath, he tends to think of it like mixing an orchestra rather than a rock band. Take the upper mids, for example. "They're so gratifying, but you've just got to be so careful with them, because 60 percent of the frequency range exists right there, including my voice. It's all 1k to 8k, that whole area: cymbals, orchestra, my voice, the synth, the choir, the brass, the woodwind, everything right there."
He talks about a frequency in his voice that he's struggled with as long as he's been singing. "It exists at about 3.5kHz, smack dab in the middle of all those other things. And then if you try and eliminate that from the vocal, it's not present enough. So it comes down to a ton of automation of frequencies, of multi-band compressions — but more than anything else it's manual moves. Each section is like: this note goes down 0.2dB, this note goes up 0.2dB, this crash cymbal is up 0.5, this word, or this little 's' at the end of the vocals, needs to be up 0.3, but at the same time we're gonna turn down the splash cymbal 0.4. Then ultimately, at the end, I'm just like: ah, still not right! But it's as close as it's gotten. It's unfortunate, because it means I just have to keep learning how to do this shit. In all honesty I'd love to be able to offshore it to somebody and say: ah, it's awesome now!"
Devin involved Empath's mastering engineer, Troy Glessner, ahead of time, bringing him in at the mixing stage to forewarn about problem frequencies and so on. He also found a couple of bits of kit useful. "Waves have a product called Nx, their virtual mix room over headphones, that I found really helpful for critical listening in the headphones. It sort of replicates a studio environment that is controlled, and I've got their Head Tracker on it, which is recognised by the camera on your computer, so when you turn your head it changes the perspective of the speakers."
He found the Reference 4 room-correction system by Sonarworks a boon, too. "I was able to take a reference microphone and analyse the deficiencies in my room. Then when I was listening to the monitors, it gives you all these points in your room to measure. If like mine, and most people's, your room isn't perfect, it provides a graphic readout of the problem frequencies, and then you put it at the end of your master chain and it compensates. It was really helpful, because I didn't have to guess as much as in the past."
Technically, Devin still struggles with the compromises of a stereo mix, even if he is at least happy with the emotional content. "I always know it can be better on a technical front, but when I listen to it, I know that's what it should feel like." At the time of this interview, he was about to start work on a 5.1 mix of Empath, and was relatively optimistic about the sonic potential. "I hope I can achieve more of that space that the music requires, as opposed to that wall-of-sound crap that seems to happen when you've got two speakers and you're trying to fit it all in."
But surely it must be depressing to put so much work into the detail and power and sweep of a work like Empath... and then have someone listen to it as an MP3 on their phone? Another shrug from Devin. "I've just got to learn to not care about the fact that people think it's this, that, or the other thing." Isn't it a frustration for an artist so concerned with sound, though? "Oh, add it to the long line of life's frustrations," he says. "I'm sure it doesn't really rank that high."
Devin Townsend has served some time signed to this or that record company, but from quite early on in his career he staked out an independent approach, for example setting up his own HevyDevy label. That's not to say he doesn't continue to value some carefully chosen collaborators — it seems churlish not to mention the contribution of musical director Mike Keneally to Empath, for example — but Devin seems increasingly to trust his own instinctive creativity above all else.
"That's more a situation of circumstance and necessity rather than choice," he says with a shrug. "I've never felt like I've gotten my vision right, and the closest I've gotten to it is by doing it myself. Yet my technical abilities are much less than I would like them to be in order to do what I need. And any time I work with people it's this weird kind of a toss-up, because there's always something from my own vision that's sacrificed in lieu of somebody's technique. So, unfortunately, on some levels, I have wound up being captain of my own ship, and that has resulted in an ability, through perseverance, to be able to take it in any direction that I have chosen. And I think the thing that ultimately inspires me to continue making albums is the fact that I just don't feel like I've ever gotten it right. So I suppose if I ever do get it right," he adds with a laugh, "that will be the last one."
He admits he is rubbish at the business side, on every conceivable level. "Anything that I've done business-wise is a result of the management and labels pulling their hair out trying to get me to do what makes sense in a linear sort of trajectory. Again, I'm able to do what it is that I need to do, and that's ultimately what I'm concerned about. Creatively, I follow intuition that rarely makes sense until I'm in the last week of it. So I'll go down a rabbit hole and do a ton of work, and then at the end of it I'm like, 'Yeah... no, that's not it.' Then I'll go down another rabbit hole, but during that, you may find that there are one or two things there that do appeal to you, that become part of this kind of puzzle. Then in the last week, you're like 'Oh, it's a record about this.' That puts the label and management and everybody that relies on me in a very frustrating position, I'm sure."
Given the way the music industry has changed over recent years, though, surely some form of independence is almost inevitable? "But I also like that Woody Allen quote," he says, "that if you just keep showing up, eventually they'll have a chair for you. I think that's the nature of my work. I'm very fortunate to find myself in a position where my neurosis has provided income, you know?"